Learning how to meal prep will save you time, money and make it easier to cook healthy dinners — even when you’re busy. But you may be wondering how to keep your meal-prepped food fresh and tasty throughout the week or if there are any food safety guidelines to consider when cooking meals ahead of time. The culinary pros in the Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen have years of experience in efficient, well-planned cooking (they have to fly through dozens of recipes per week, after all), so they dished out their best meal prep tips. Your guide to easy, organized (and delicious!) cooking ahead.
What is meal prepping?
Meal prep is the practice of preparing key elements of a dish like grains, roasted veggies or cooked protein, or even the entire recipe (make-ahead meals FTW!), before you plan to eat it. This smart meal planning method gives you a head start on the week, often leading to faster, healthier, stress-free eating.
What are the benefits of meal prepping?
Meal prepping can save you time on busy weeknights by making food available to heat and eat right when you get home. It can also save you money: Meal planning helps ensure that you don’t buy things at the grocery store you don’t need, and pre-prepped food is more likely to get eaten so it reduces food waste. It’s also easier to eat healthy meals since the menu gets set in advance. You’re less likely to choose a not-so-great option when you already have a healthy dinner at home, ready to go.
Is there any downside to meal prepping?
Since meal prepping can involve eating the same dish or types of food a few days in a row, it’s not for people who prize variety and freshness above all else. Getting kids on board with eating “leftovers” can also pose a challenge, especially if you’re making accommodations for different dietary restrictions or palettes. To avoid monotony, use different spices, dressings or condiments in your dishes or freeze some of your prepped food to feature in meals for a future week.
Or skip pre-made meals and focus on prepping your ingredients instead: Washed celery and carrots can be diced for a tomato sauce or sliced for snacking, cooked quinoa can be paired with any protein or turned into a grain salad and roast chicken can be shredded and stirred into different meals all week (soups, wraps, tostadas, etc.) to name just a few ways your prepped ingredients can be transformed.
How do I prep my meals for the week?
There are a few different ways to meal prep, but all the food preparation methods involve organizing the food in your fridge in a way that makes for easy breakfasts, lunches and dinners — whether that’s just chopping or slicing foods or actually cooking it. There’s no one way to do it, but three common techniques include:
Okay! I am ready — how do I start meal prepping?
Stock up on reusable, airtight food storage containers that will help your prepared ingredients or meals stay fresh by locking bacteria and odors out.
Once you have your meal-prepping gear, you may want to download a grocery list app that will help keep your plan organized and make shopping and cooking a snap by curating recipes and grocery lists for you. Don’t fret if you’re not into the tech-based solution: A pen and paper also work for planning out your week.
All set? The next step is picking your recipes. Before you do, consider these five things:
- Choose just one mealtime you’d like to prepare for — Either quick breakfasts, healthy lunches or dinners. Keep it simple by starting with one you usually eat out or skip altogether.
- Pick a day to do your meal prepping. Sunday and Wednesday are two common choices.
- Determine how much you want to prep. Experiment with prepping for two or three days before attempting five. You may not like eating the same or similar things the whole week.
- Invest in a cookbook. Good Housekeeping’s Easy Meal Prep: The Ultimate Playbook for Make-Ahead Meals comes with over 100 healthy make-ahead recipes, as well as tips and techniques to make meal prepping a breeze.
- Pick up a meal prep planner. Our Weekly Planner includes space for your to-do lists plus daily inspiration like quotes, recipes and our best tips and tricks for all facets of life.
If you’re looking to ramp up your nutrient intake, make veggies or fruit at least 50% of whatever you’re prepping. They don’t necessarily have to come from the actual produce section: Frozen or canned varieties will last almost forever and work in nearly every meal.
The best foods for meal prepping:
Freezer finds are already washed, chopped and ready to be roasted, steamed or sautéed.
Save this list for your next grocery shopping trip:
Need help with recipe inspiration? We’ve got you covered:
Best meal prep recipes for breakfast:
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so it’s a good one to pick when you’re choosing which meals to prep. You want to make sure your meal is light, but also has good carbs, fiber and protein.
Best meal prep recipes for lunch:
Salads and soups are anything but boring when you take the time to customize them to your liking. Regardless of what you pick, focus on lean protein, healthy carbs and veggies.
Best meal prep recipes for dinner:
Add lots of color to your plate by loading up on all sorts of vegetables, including broccoli, peppers and tomatoes, but go lighter on the carbs and grains.
Best meal prep recipes for snacks:
Put a healthy spin on your childhood favorites when the afternoon slump hits. Trade peanut butter for almond butter and cheesy popcorn for sweet matcha.
How long will meal prepped food last?
Prepared foods can remain refrigerated for 2–5 days or frozen for 3–4 months, depending on the ingredients. To play it safe and avoid foodborne illness, keep food out of the “danger zone” — temperatures between 40°F and 140°F. Sealing food in airtight packaging or storage containers will not only keep bacteria out, but also protect the flavor, lock moisture in and help prevent freezer burn.